How to Burglarize the FBI: The Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI Did It Back in 1971
For most of US history, spies didn’t have rules—even when they were targeting US citizens. The spymasters and their agents did whatever was necessary: blackbag break-ins, illegal phone taps, telegram and mail intercepts, plus the usual lying, stealing, and killing. But in late 1970, a collection of ordinary citizens became so outraged by illegal government spying that they began to meticulously plan a daring mission: They would raid an FBI office.
On March 8, 1971, a group of activists calling themselves the Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into an office outside of Philadelphia, stole nearly all the FBI’s own documents, and mailed them to Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger. This leak led to massive reforms of the rules of surveillance. Any limits on NSA and FBI actions inside the United States are thanks in part to these daring citizen burglars. They kept their story a secret for 43 years. Meet the men and women who burglarized the FBI.
Their secret planning began with a spaghetti dinner. A pair of college professors, several university students, a social worker, a daycare worker, and a taxi driver gathered around a homey dinner table, children underfoot at a three-story stone townhouse in Philadelphia. Some of the guests were on edge, while others laughed like old friends. Their leader William “Bill” Davidon, a physics professor at nearby Haverford College, was the oldest at 43. He leaned back, quietly observing the crew that ranged in age down to 20. Several of the members had been arrested in earlier actions. But this operation was on a different scale of danger. Even sitting at the table slurping spaghetti and discussing plans was enough for conspiracy charges, perhaps up to ten years in Federal Prison. If the FBI catches you in the act, a friendly lawyer warned, you might be shot.
East Germany’s Secret Police Used to Spy on Skateboarders
For whatever reason the public perception of skateboarding seems to have changed over the last decade. Skaters on TV aren’t obnoxious, glue-huffing wasters any more; they’re admirable young men building community skateparks on Google ads. But the sport, or the culture that goes hand-in-hand with the sport, at least, did used to be seen as more of a threat to all things wholesome.
One country where this held especially true was communist East Germany in the 1980s—also known as the German Democratic Republic, or GDR—before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Skateboarding was American, therefore subversive and dangerous, so the Stasi began monitoring the skating community to keep tabs on any potential troublemakers or ringleaders. The perceived danger quickly made its way into the state media. A news clip from the time instructs viewers that it is “our duty to protect our children and youths from [skateboarding],” meaning skaters were demonized and left to smuggle Californian-made boards over the border if they wanted to skate anything more advanced than a plank of wood attached to some rollerskate wheels.
German filmmaker Marten Persiel made a “hybrid documentary” about the history of skating in the GDR called This Ain’t California, which was released last year in Germany and gets its international cinematic release next month. The film was criticized on its release for its liberal use of reconstructions and the fact its lead character never actually existed, but Marten told me, “all the things that happen in the film are true stories.” He simply amalgamated them to create a lead character who he could hang the narrative from. And in a “hybrid documentary,” that doesn’t seem like too big of a deal.
I spoke to Marten about his film, skateboard smuggling, and hugely successful punk bands made up entirely of secret service agents.
NSA Spying on America’s Allies Is Business As Usual
Unsurprisingly, the news that the NSA has been monitoring the calls of dozens of world leaders hasn’t gone down particularly well with any of those world leaders. In fact, after suspecting that the US might have been snooping on her communications, last week German Chancellor Angela Merkel rang up Obama herself to demand some answers. A couple of days later, it emerged that her phone has potentially been monitored for more than a decade by the supposedly friendly American government.
In response to the latest revelations to be brought to light by Edward Snowden’s leaks, Germany and Brazil last week proposed that a UN resolution be drawn up to put a cap on America’s “indiscriminate” and “extra-territorial” surveillance. Twenty-one countries—including US allies Mexico and France—are now discussing such a resoluatoin. Ironically, there’s every chance that these talks about the issue will find their way into an NSA analyst’s earpiece at some point, since an earlier Snowden leak alleged that the US has bugged the UN headquarters in the past.
This type of surveillance isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, according to Carl Meacham of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Countries all over the world do surveillance of their friends and enemies,” he told me. “That’s been happening for years.” However, he did stress that “the scope and magnitude of these [spying] initiatives is shocking to some folks… On the one hand you have the Obama administration sending a clear sign of its willingness to partner with Latin America, to break with the past and regard these countries as equals. But on the other: ‘We’re also watching you.’”
Jacob Appelbaum Doesn’t Have Much Hope for the Future of Privacy
Jacob Appelbaum has been called the “most dangerous man in cyberspace.” But he’s not, and it’s a label that pisses him off. In reality, Appelbaum is a renowned cybersecurity expert who happens to be one of the developers for the Tor Projec,; a WikiLeaks collaborator who recently co-authored a book with Julian Assange, and a trusted friend of Edward Snowden confidant Laura Poitras, with whom he’s working on the NSA links forDer Spiegel.
In 2010, Jacob became a target of the US intelligence services due to his links with WikiLeaks; he’s been detained and had his electronic equipment seized a number of times. Not particularly fond of the persecution he was facing, Appelbaum moved to Germany, where he has been approached by almost all the main German political parties as a computer expert, and has been consulting on films dealing with cybersurveillance and the current digital-rights climate.
On the day of our interview, his colleagues at the Chaos Computer Club—Europe’s largest hacking collective—managed to break the security on Apple’s iPhone 5 fingerprint scanner. And, Appelbaum promised, there were to be more big developments on the horizon for the Tor network. We sat down for a chat about whether or not the possibility of individual freedom has all but disappeared in the modern world.
VICE: What would you say is the best way to understand the internet, rather than thinking of it as just “cyberspace”?
Jacob Appelbaum: There’s no real separation between the real world and the internet. What we’ve started to see is the militarization of that space. That isn’t to say that it just started to happen, just that we’ve started to see it in an incontrovertible, “Oh, the crazy paranoid people weren’t crazy and paranoid enough,” sort of way. In the West, we see extreme control of the internet—the NSA/GCHQ stuff like the quantum insertion that Der Spiegel just covered… the Tempora program. Really, these aren’t about controlling the internet, it’s about using the internet to control physical space and people in physical space. That is to say they’re using the internet as a gigantic surveillance machine. And because you can’t opt out of the machine anymore, it’s a problem.
Obviously it’s an imperfect system, though, right? Otherwise they wouldn’t have gotten caught.
I agree that there’s something to be said about how they’re not perfect, but that’s the whole point; they present this all-seeing eye as if it’s the perfect solution, but it’s actually not a perfect solution and has some serious existential threats to democracy itself. You can’t have the largest spying system ever built and also say that somehow it won’t be abused.
Is the only alternative to that a system where anonymity is entirely guaranteed, even if you’re committing fraud or something?
It’s important to recognize that there are different kinds of anonymity. For example, here we are in this restaurant in Berlin, and neither of us has a cell phone on. Geographically, we’re anonymous, but we’re not going to defraud this restaurant. Likewise, on the internet there’s no reason my ISP should know the websites that I visit and where I’m located, and at no point does that necessitate that anything bad will happen. Though you will have some undesirable behavior, there is a larger undesirable behavior to consider, which is that the internet as a gigantic global spying machine is not what we want for human society.
The DEA Is Monitoring Your Phone Calls
On Sunday, the New York Times revealed the existence of a program known as the Hemisphere Project, which gives the Drug Enforcement Administration and local law enforcement agencies around the country access to a database of Americans’ phone records that goes back to 1987. You might think that a judge would have to sign off on a subpoena in order for the cops to view your phone records, but the process is actually much more streamlined (and invasive): the federal government reportedly pays AT&T to have the telecom giant’s employees sit next to DEA agents and local police detectives and show them whatever data they need. Technically, the information is stored by AT&T and not the government (this avoids some sticky legal issues), but in practice the cops have access to a database that logs billions of calls a day and includes not only who you called, but where you were when you placed the call. (Your call gets logged if it passes through an AT&T-owned system; you don’t have to be a customer of the company for them to have your data.) The current official Obama administration excuse for the program they were forced to admit the existence of is that it helps track down drug dealers and other criminals who tend to use difficult-to-track disposable cellphones.
This story comes on the heels of a story published by Reuters last month that detailed the NSA´s quasi-legal habit of passing on tips to other agencies, like the DEA, that don’t normally work on national security-related cases. After being given these tips, investigators then “recreate” where they got their evidence in a trick known as “parallel construction,” which allows them to hide where they got their information from defendants, judges, and even prosecutors. (Members of Congress have been pressing Attorney General Eric Holder about this, and he claims this is a common tactic used to protect sources.)
All these revelations about the scope of the information the DEA has access to are frightening, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Although the government originally claimed that it would only use its massive powers of data collection and surveillance in serious, rare, 24-type situations, of course they are using these same powers to go after more mundane criminals. For instance, “sneak and peek” warrants, which allow the police to search your property without informing you as they normally would, were legalized by the terrorism-centric PATRIOT Act but somehow wound up being used more often in drug investigations. This sort of codependent relationship between the war on drugs and the national security state makes it difficult to separate the two. It’s becoming clear that it’s unrealistic to ask the government to play by the rules law enforcement is supposed to be following except in situations where big bad terrorists are involved; mission creep is inevitable. More than one tentacle of government needs to be hacked off before Americans get some privacy back.